Find Signal in Noise to Draw Meaning and Make Better Decisions


Cognitive biases, we're not leaving home without them. Well, right now we're not leaving home, period. It's just so interesting that there's an obsession over productivity and time spent on tasks, and yet, so little proportional attention to how what occupies brain waves impacts it.

I don't know if you've ever wondered why are there are so many cognitive biases. There must be some reason they survived through the centuries to modern day. And yes, I'm aware this is a rhetorical question, because cognitive biases help us address key needs in our lives:

  • filter and sort information
  • organize data
  • draw conclusions
  • simplify

Let's take a look at each of these first, then we'll talk about how to hedge your bets and avoid blind spots.

Too much information

What's going on now is that we all have too much information from disparate fields and sources to filter and sort through. It is rare that we feel we have too many trusted sources of information, however.

If the goal is turning noise into signal, how do you avoid depending too much on:

  • things you notice in your memory
  • unusual things that stick out
  • change that gets noticed
  • details that confirm your beliefs and attract your attention
  • easier-to-spot flaws in others

Rather than give in to the brain's natural inclination, save effort in another way. Take a structured approach to figuring out the wheat from the chaff. For example, define elements that are critical to the evaluation, then use assessments made independently and based on facts. 

Use this method through thin and thick in news cycles and over time to assess the credibility of sources. Then perhaps you have a stronger base to start from moving froward.

Not enough meaning

Compounding the sorting challenge comes a need to organize data in a way that makes sense to you. By nature, news and public information are general. It takes more work to make it specific and applicable to you.

If you're in the process of constructing a story of what's going on right now, and how it applies to your company, you could observe how it's easy to:

  • find stories and see patterns in sparse data
  • fill in using stereotypes, generalities and prior history
  • imagine things and people you're familiar with and like, rather than those who are unfamiliar
  • simplify probabilities into numbers that are easier to remember
  • think you know what others are thinking
  • project current assumptions from the past into the future, getting timelines wrong

Resist the instinct to “fill in,” which happens in an instant and is an effortless process. You're rarely aware it's happening at all. You don't know that something is missing because it doesn't reach your attention threshold.

Like rational choice theory, common sense insists people have reasons for doing what they do. Maybe, but predicting what they will do and their reasons is anything but simple. You can only do that when you look back and rationalize or come up with a neat story about what worked and why.

This is a frame problem. But beware of papering over gaps where significant and critical information is missing. It could be a costly proposition.

Need to act fast

Once your mind wraps around a pattern you're tempted to use the emerging story to make decisions. The need for speed and uncertainty don't mix well. Right now, they're both high, which means we're right in the middle of chaos.

Some people do well in chaos, others need to create order to function. When things move fast in real time, order is an illusion. But this doesn't mean you need to jump to conclusions too quickly, either.

If you're feeling a compulsion to draw conclusions, you'll notice the:

  • need to act fast to project confidence
  • need to focus and favor the immediate, relatable thing vs. the delayed and distant gratification
  • desire to complete what you started to get anything done because you already invested time and energy into getting to that point
  • motivation to preserve autonomy and status over the desire to avoid mistakes from irreversible decisions
  • simple over the complex and ambiguous

It's hard, but with practice it becomes easier to resist the temptation to go from stories into decisions. For example, every company looks at competition in terms of what they do and say. Yet. it's why they do and say it that matters. Often, it takes more digging to uncover why.

Everyone can copy tactics or words, but without looking under the hood, it's hard to copy results. There's a better method to figure out what's going on, and that is observing what customers do.

What to self-reinforce

One thing to remember is that each person has a certain way to look at the world. A point of view and perspective often based on reinforcing what is already known. It's what I call the view from somewhere.

Clarity is a moving target, because you're always competing with the story people have in their heads. Let's not forget how your own story sometimes gets ahead of what's really going on.

If you're keen on keeping yourself honest, you could take the extra step to be mindful that you tend to:

  • edit and reinforce memories after the fact
  • discard specifics and nuance in favor of generalizations
  • reduce events to lists, bullets and key elements
  • store memories differently based on how you experience them vs. their informational value

Thus make decisions based on potentially faulty mental models rooted into what was, rather than possible futures scenarios.

To be less wrong, it's useful to engage multiple perspectives, to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of ways to interpret information, or to see multiple answers and not just one.

When in doubt, run small, low cost experiments to test and learn. Repeat to accelerate understanding.

The will to move forward

Divergent thinking is useful when you're exploring new situations. Typically, this is a skill honed through practice. For example, by applying ideas from different industries and roles to a question.

Beyond the ability to think differently, you also need the will to act differently.

This is the domain of creativity, or the ability to combine different bodies of knowledge and observation into a plan and execution. When you have enough dots to connect, you can see beyond the obvious and get going.

The core issue in companies and governments alike, is the ability to process a lot of information in a timely manner, sort what's important, draw meaning from it, and find a systematic way to make decisions. All good so far. Then nothing good happens. Why?

Because you can have all the expertise, resources, and capacity in the world, but if you have a weak leader whose mental models are more important than the facts, you're stuck.

Or maybe you're leading by committee and there's disagreement on how to move forward. Each person pulls in a different direction. You can have immense wealth, scientific knowledge, and readiness, but if the governance is terrible, you'll have terrible outcomes.

You need the means and the will to make things happen. And this is not just in your head, at the level of reasoning, where you can deal with cognitive biases. It's also in the rolling up of sleeves and building the infrastructure and governance to do what you've thought about. Stick with it long and often enough to learn.

Many organizations and companies have become mechanisms to respond to special interests, or keep things as they are, more or less. This works alright when things hum along, with the occasional speed bump.

But when a crisis hits, that's when you know if you have all the equipment to respond. For example, companies are now discovering that breaking the glass in case of marketing doesn't work so well if what's inside is just fluff.

The opposite if fluff is a decision. In fluid situations like the current one, it's useful also to update your thinking and decisions as more information becomes available. To avoid blind spots, leaders can:

  1. Create a structured approach to filter and sort information, organize data, draw conclusions and simplify that will flag cognitive biases.
  2. Build a team with divergent thinkers to expand horizons and convergent thinkers to get things done.
  3. Create opening for dissent and conversation.
  4. Listen to understand what others are saying, having defined the critical attributes that matter in advance.

Bonus points if you use Bayesian inference to update probabilities of things happening as more evidence or information becomes available.


I send out a chatty weekly email with links to resources to feel less lonely, lead better, and absorb some Italian style in good company.

, ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *